REMEMBERING ROD MCKUEN: POPULAR POET, SONGWRITER

Rod McKuen, with Frank Sinatra. McKuen sold 100 million records and 60 million books.

Scarriet owes a great debt to the cross-over genre of Poetry As Song/Song As Poetry.

Our most popular and oft-visited post is The Top One Hundred Popular Song Lyrics That Work As Poetry, published a year and a half ago, which gets thousands of hits a week.

Scarriet embraces the accessible in poetry and believes Pound and Williams killed the art.  We love Romantic poetry and believe Shakespeare, Keats and Poe represent the pinnacle of modern achievement, and that since then there has been a great falling off.

So we ought to acknowledge the passing of Rod McKuen (April 29 1933—January 29 2015) who was a popular American poet and songwriter in the French chanson tradition.

Not that we love McKuen’s poetry; it is wretched, for the most part. But the songwriting aspect of his popularity, and the way poetry and songwriting in popular culture mysteriously intertwine ought to be addressed, and we will address it here very briefly.

A popular song works its magic in a moment-to-moment fashion and will not stand still for profound contemplation; as much as poetry is like popular song, that poetry repels, by its very nature, the profound, or the deep.

But we can go even further: whatever is monumental (think of Michelangelo’s David) makes its impact on us immediately—any art product achieves true, popular, success quickly and superficially.

This partially answers the question pertaining to Rod McKuen.

How can something be bad and also good?

This question best sums up the aesthetic phenomenon in philosophical terms.

To put it as simply as possible:

To be popular, one must be bad, for to triumph in the eyes of the many is to court that which is low and unlearned.

And yet to stand apart from rivals by achieving popular success is good.

To court the low, however, even in a successful manner, is, in the final analysis, bad.

And thus the critic Julia Keller called McKuen “gooey schmaltz that wouldn’t pass muster in a freshman creative-writing class” which “the masses ate up with a spoon, while highbrow literary critics roasted him on a spit.”

The complexity enters when we reflect that “the masses” are—to call them bad or good, or unlearned or learned, is to impose an artificial idealism upon nature—which, by its very existence, transcends all man-made judgements, no matter how “highbrow.” If “the masses” want “schmaltz,” it would be stupid not to give it to them, and whether it “passes muster in a creative-writing class” is beside the point.

Just as human painting fails miserably when compared to reality, all that is literarily highbrow also fails in the same way.  To court nature, by appealing to “the masses” directly, with “schmaltzy” poetry, is a strategy which not only courts success, but bests the “highbrow” at its own game, since the “schmaltzy,” by definition, is precisely an expression of weakness and failure characterized by the tremendous gap between attempts by the most supreme highbrow formulations of art to capture reality and magnificent, infinite reality itself—which dwarfs all human aspirations to artistically render that reality.

The spark that sets aflame any given artist’s popularity is always a complex crossroads of effort, luck, timing, and so forth, as complex as any highbrow artwork itself. Rod McKuen’s life and fame, then, deserves as much study as any other artist’s life and fame: Ezra Pound, or James Joyce, for instance.

Schmaltz is timeless, and if Pound avoided it in poetry more unique than McKuen’s, this only means Pound succeeds (in relative terms) in the lower order of humanity’s vain efforts to compete with nature and reality, whereas McKuen succeeds (in relative terms) in the higher order of reality itself, in which human schmaltz is a million times more prevalent than any quality we might extract from the work of Pound.

We find ourselves unable—and we challenge anyone else to—say one thing which makes Pound more important than McKuen, that would not immediately draw suspicion of merely saying that which sounds highbrow but has no real meaning at all.

For what is human expression which we term ‘art,’ but expression by people and for people, and for that purpose alone?

Science is another thing, and all agree schmaltz has no place there.

But to judge poetry and song by standards which have nothing to do with them is to founder on the mercantilism of creative-writing and the wind-blown delusions of highbrow criticism, and to ultimately descend to even lower depths of pretense and folly.

THE AVANT-GARDE IS LOOKING FOR A NEW (BLACK) BOYFRIEND

Cathy Park Hong: “Fuck the avant-garde.”  But does she really mean it?

For its whole existence, Scarriet has hammered away at Modernism—and its Avant-garde identity—as nothing but a meaningless, one-dimensional joke (the found poem, basically) tossed at the public by reactionary, rich, white guys in order to make it ‘cool’ to stifle truly creative efforts accessible to the public at large.

The controversy surrounding Scarriet’s claim lies in this one simple fact: the Avant-garde (Ron Silliman, et al) identifies itself as politically Left.

In Leftist circles of the Avant-garde, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot are championed for their poetry, not their politics.

We might call this Pound/Eliot phenomenon the Art-Split: Bad Poet/Good Poetry.

By accepting this “Split,” the reactionary, white, male, Avant-garde is given license to dress in Left-wing clothing.

You have to believe, of course, that Pound’s poetry is important and good, and that Hugh ” The Pound Era” Kenner’s trashing of Edna Millay, for instance, was a good and noble effort to debunk old-fashioned “quietist” poetry, and not chauvinist, jealous bullying.

Leftist Ron Silliman has no taste for Edna Millay, and the “Split” allows this to appear perfectly normal.

The embarrassing and obvious truth: 1. accessibility to the public at large is democratic, 2. befuddling the masses is reactionary, gets a yawn, too—because of the “Split.”

The reason the “Split” works as an excuse is that it appeals to both Left and Right intellectuals: the greatest ‘am I an intellectual?’ test is if one is able to grasp (and embrace) the idea that a person can be bad but still write good poetry.

We do not believe this is true; we believe the opposite: one cannot be a bad person and write good poetry. If the poet is a truly bad person, the “good” poetry was most likely stolen, or written before the soul of the poet became  rotten.

And this is why Modernists hate the Romantics—because the Romantics were poetic individuals, while the Modernists (because of skyscrapers and aeroplanes and women getting the vote and other lame excuses) were not.

The “Split,” the source of so much modernist mischief, is a red herring.  The almighty “Split” even makes one think Ezra Pound must be a good poet: one must believe this is so to have intellectual, avant-garde creds—simply for the reason that for so long now, the “Split” has ruled over Letters.  The wretched, sophistical, school-boy “And then went down to the ship,/ Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and/ we set up mast and sail on that swart ship/” is somehow good because Pound is badAnd because it is wretched, it is avant-garde, and because it is avant-garde, it is wretched, and therefore better than, “What lips my lips have kissed and where and why.”  This is how those who think themselves very good judges of poetry convince themselves that Ezra Pound is a great poet.  Yes, it is truly frightening.

Despite the “Split,” rumblings about the reactionary nature of the Avant-garde were bound to start, as Scarriet does influence the culture it observes.

Witness the explosion of Left indignation in the latest Lana Turner Journal as the “Split”-fooled Left vaguely catches on.

We have Kent Johnson, an imaginative and brilliant man, in “No Avant-Garde: Notes Toward A Left  Front of the Arts,” reduced to the most pitiful, quixotic Old Leftism it is possible to imagine. In his essay, he imagines splendidly well, and he knows a great deal, but he’s very bitter, obviously, as the ugly truth—the Avant-garde is, and has always been, reactionary—sinks in.

We have Joshua Clover, in “The Genealogical Avant-Garde,” complaining in the same vein.

The current avant-gardes in contemporary Anglophone poetry make their claims largely by reference to previous avant-gardes.

The genealogical avant-garde is defined by a single contradiction. It has no choice but to affirm the very cultural continuity which it must also claim to oppose.

The “Split” is always rationalized.

The “Split” in this case, however, is not Bad Poet/Good Poetry, and in some ways it is far less problematic.

The “Split” now imploding due to common sense is: Bad Mainstream/Good Avant-garde.

The Avant-garde, as the progressive intellectuals finally understand it, is the Mainstream—and thus, bad.  Had they been able to see, 100 years ago, the nature of Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, F. O. Matthiessen, and their New Critic allies, they would not have taken so long to understand the clever reactionary agenda.

But now they are finally getting it.

Cathy Park Hong (writing in Lana Turner no. 7) definitely wants a new boyfriend.  And it ‘aint Ron Silliman.

To encounter the history of avant-garde poetry is to encounter a racist tradition.

Poets of color have always been expected to sit quietly in the backbenches of both mainstream and avant-garde poetry. We’ve been trotted out in the most mindless forms of tokenism for anthologies and conferences, because to have all white faces would be downright embarrassing. For instance, Donald Allen’s classic 1959 and even updated 1982 anthology New American Poetry, which Marjorie Perloff has proclaimed “the anthology of avant-garde poetry,” includes a grand tally of one minority poet: Leroi Jones, aka Amiri Baraka. Tokenism at its most elegant.

Mainstream poetry is rather pernicious in awarding quietist minority poets who assuage quasi-white liberal guilt rather than challenge it. They prefer their poets to praise rather than excoriate, to write sanitized, easily understood personal lyrics on family and ancestry rather than make sweeping institutional critiques. But the avant-gardists prefer their poets of color to be quietest as well, paying attention to poems where race—through subject and form—is incidental, preferably invisible, or at the very least, buried. Even if racial identity recurs as a motif throughout the works of poets like John Yau, critics and curators of experimental poetry are quick to downplay it or ignore it altogether. I recall that in graduate school my peers would give me backhanded compliments by saying my poetry was of interest because it “wasn’t just about race.” Such an attitude is found in Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith’s anthology, “Against Expression,” when they included excerpts from M. NourbeSe Philip’s brilliant “Zong!,” which explores the late 18th century British court case where 150 slaves were thrown overboard so the slave ship’s captain could collect the insurance money. The book is a constraint-based tour-de-force that only uses words found in the original one-page legal document.  Here is how Dworkin and Goldsmith characterize Zong: “the ethical inadequacies of that legal document . . . do not prevent their détournement in the service of experimental writing.” God forbid that maudlin and heavy-handed subjects like slavery and mass slaughter overwhelm the form!

The avant-garde’s “delusion of whiteness” is the luxurious opinion that anyone can be “post-identity” and can casually slip in and out of identities like a video game avatar, when there are those who are consistently harassed, surveilled, profiled, or deported for whom they are.

Even today, avant-garde’s most vocal, self-aggrandizing stars continue to be white and even today these stars like Kenneth Goldsmith spout the expired snake oil that poetry should be “against expression” and “post-identity.”

From legendary haunts like Cabaret Voltaire to San Remo and Cedar Tavern, avant-garde schools have fetishized community to mythologize their own genesis. But when I hear certain poets extolling the values of their community today, my reaction is not so different from how I feel a self-conscious, prickling discomfort that there is a boundary drawn between us. Attend a reading at St. Marks Poetry Project or the launch of an online magazine in a Lower East Side gallery and notice that community is still a packed room of white hipsters.

Avant-garde poetry’s attitudes towards race have been no different than that of mainstream institutions.

The encounter with poetry needs to change constantly via the internet, via activism and performance, so that poetry can continue to be a site of agitation, where the audience is not a receptacle of conditioned responses but is unsettled and provoked into participatory response. But will these poets ever be accepted as the new avant-garde? The avant-garde has become petrified, enamored by its own past, and therefore forever insular and forever looking backwards. Fuck the avant-garde. We must hew our own path.

Yes, “fuck the avant-garde.”  But we might just add that it is the avant-garde that has always been the problem; in this case, the tail wags the dog.

The New Critics (ex-I’ll Take My Stand Old South reactionary agrarianists) got an “in” when they launched their textbook, Understanding Poetry in the late 30s—it praised Pound and attacked Poe.

Popular poets like Edgar Poe and Edna St. Vincent Millay were the Mainstream “good” ambushed by the clique of Eliot, Pound and the New Critics.

How blithely and unthinkingly Cathy Park Hong takes up the “quietist” definition of the avant-garde (and ostentatiously Left) Silliman.

Unfortunately, they will get fooled again.

J.L. AUSTIN, PERFORMATIVE LANGUAGE PHILOSOPHER, SEEKS TO ADVANCE AGAINST PALESTINIAN SCHOLAR OF LITERATURE EDWARD SAID

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Edward Said (d. 2003)

J.L. Austin worked for British Intelligence.

Great Britain, losing its Empire while cozying up to the American one, was trying to save its ass: a dying Empire, known for its spies, using a spy, Austin, to cook up a philosophy to save itself, should make us curious, at least. Austin was a plain-looking, bespectacled man, like Philip Larkin; Larkin quietly became Britain’s best poet since Tennyson, and Austin is the philosopher we need to read because his take on language is so brilliant, and really quite restorative.

Britain and the West suffered a tremendous decline in the first part of the 20th century; it was a Futurist age in which Things came to dominate in Art and Architecture, War and Wit; the Body of the World was revealed in all its horror: morality and all it’s beautiful delicacy was crushed by the steely, large, obscene, photographed, Object; Modernism emerged all decked out in haiku imagery and Bauhaus cement and Ezra Pound and Marcel Duchamp and Coco Channel and Blimps and Auto cars and Cubism and Jew-hating, Gertrude Stein-loving Paris. Bing Crosby and Abstract Metal Sculpture stepped out together in an orgy of bad taste: tough guy, ethnic-obsessed, Skyscraper, Las Vegas, Frank Sinatra bullshit took over.

The West finally let its hair down in 1963 with the Beatles’ first LP and Beauty returned. The Big Sophistication of Modernism fell and Technology that was small and nimble saved our lives. Ugly politics continued, of course: US/West versus Russia/Middle East, but Technology triumphed over fake, stylish Symbol in the meantime; science conquered empire for a while. The ingenuity of Franklin and Poe fought the tyranny of oil and opium to an uneasy standstill. Uneasy, to be sure. Did the Beatles bring us love or drug addiction? It was hard to tell, but at least, in our materialism, we got to decide. The planes of 9/11 were actually a Hindenburg type disaster, belonging to Modernism’s last horror gasp.

J.L. Austin said ALL language worked like “I now pronounce you man and wife.” Language was not a thing; it was a performance. What matters is what something does, not what it is. The truth was not a ‘that’ or a ‘this’ but a ‘thus.’ It was Socrates who told us this a long time ago. Modernism brought in Ayn Rand and literal-minded Aristotle. Shelley, Plato, Beauty, and the Romantics were dumped.

Modernism insisted on ‘the new,’ but “I now pronounce you man and wife” will never get old; Byron’s rhymes do a little more than Pound’s twists and turns and junkyard thing-ism. The American liberal, a holdout of Modernism, proudly insists that Religion is “not true,” that reality is much closer to the rascality of Pound—but the American liberal misses the point that it is not what something is, it is what something does, which finally matters.

Edward Said, who spent his life attempting to enlighten the West about the civilized heritage of the Middle East, before he died in 2003, founded, with Daniel Barenboim, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, so that Israelis and Arabs might perform Beethoven together. The orchestra is named for a work of lyric poetry by Goethe inspired by Hafiz, the Persian poet.

The orchestra is surely more meaningful than most modern philosophies could possibly be.

WINNER: J. L. AUSTIN

Austin and Edmund Wilson will battle for the Post-Modern championship and a spot in the Final Four!

 

 

 

 

WHY ART IS CONSERVATIVE

We should never confuse artistic place with artistic spirit, nor either one of these with artistic truth.

Just as the Jews and the early Christians measured everything against Rome, capital of Empire, so in our time, London, Paris or New York has served to validate the artist.

Either the village artist came to learn in Paris, or Paris came to exploit the village artist. Replace ‘village’ with ‘bourgeois,’ or ‘conservative,’ today, and still the final arbitrator is the faceless and inscrutable committee of the avant-garde, sitting with its tentacles in the middle of a great city.

Great artist validated by great city is one of those truths supremely obvious to the extent that the even more obvious meaning is missed.  In Ellen Williams’ Harriet Monroe and the Poetry Renaissance, look at how one great city draws the “bohemian artist” away from another great city: it is ever and always, with a certain scholarly mind, all about place:

Floyd Dell, the leader and as it were founder of the new artistic bohemia, brushed aside Harriet Monroe’s requests for poetry and prose, and had to defend himself against the charge of being “standoffish” not long before his departure for New York to join the staff of the Masses.

Dell’s departure reminds one that the turnover within the local bohemia was high. Perhaps 1912 was a significant moment in a progressive centralization of American society. Edgar Lee Masters, who had come up to Chicago in the generation before from a small Illinois town, had joined the local bar, married a local girl, and settled down to family life. But the young people with artistic aspirations who came to Chicago in 1912 from other, smaller middle-western towns departed in a few years for New York, or after the war, for Europe. Thus Dell left for New York late in 1913; Margaret Anderson moved the Little Review to New York late in 1916, after some two years’ publication in Chicago; and Sherwood Anderson was spending more time in New York than in Chicago by 1918. This “upward” mobility of the leadership would tend to diminish the influence and weaken the identity of the local bohemia.

Several factors, then, kept Poetry from being the voice of the new generation in Chicago, whatever general stimulation it got from them or gave them. Ezra Pound, operating by letter all the way from London, remained the principal avant-garde stimulus in its editorial counsels.

Just an aside: Margaret Anderson’s Little Review was the original publisher of Joyce’s Ulysses—the obscenity charge which put Joyce on the map was brought by the U.S. Post Office after Pound inserted excerpts of Ulysses into Margaret Anderson’s magazine.  Pound’s editorial digs were in London, and from there, Pound, the creepy, egotistical, gadfly, mediocrity, with the help of two women, Margaret Anderson and Harriet Monroe, shaped not only 20th century poetry, but 20th century fiction, as well.  If Harriet Monroe had not happened to visit a shop owned by publisher Elkin Matthews in London and found a couple of Pound’s books just published by Matthews, in her trip around the world in 1910, the world might be a different place.  Bohemian creds (which Pound had) have long been vital, even though the poetry produced might be unreadable today, because revolutionary ideals go a long way to inspire a certain type of ambitious fraud—when ‘conservative’ and ‘bourgeois’ are enemies to blanket, blank-check, bohemian thrills.

A funny truth about Harriet Monroe, poet, founder and editor of Poetry, is not that she covered, as a journalist, in 1913, the Armory Show of Modern Art in New York, or that she came up with a great business plan for her little magazine, or that she adored Shelley, or that she had many reservations about the avant-garde poetry she published, or, that she allowed herself to be deluded into thinking the great con-man Ezra Pound was a poetic genius; no, it was this: Harriet Monroe’s brother-in-law invented the skyscraper.  She even published a memoir on him—John Wellborn Root.

This is just the sort of fact that eludes the fact-finder: the fact of place, the fact of the important city, the fact of Monroe’s commercial connections are layers such that less obvious facts cover the more obvious ones. Bohemians are always the last ones to get the most obvious facts—that Pound was a con-artist, for instance.  The importance of place is one of those facts that keep most avant-garde critics busy in their obscurantist mission: do everything to distract the audience from the show-off, tasteless, inferiority of the art itself.  Every time we read of the adventures of some self-important, “rule-breaking” avant-garde cabal, we always notice how the geographical locale, whether we are in the actual city, or outside the actual city, or on the west coast, or on the east coast, or the Left Bank, is the most crucial thing.

The way a thing is advertised is not the thing, but the advertisement, with enough repetition, often becomes the thing, while the latter (the thing itself) practically disappears.  This is pretty much how avant-garde art works.

How ridiculous to think that it matters whether a poet is working in Chicago, or New York, or anywhere.  Or riding a motorcycle.  Or walking. Travel literature is a legitimate genre, we suppose, but why do so many confuse it with aesthetics?  Wearily, we are forced to learn of Harriet Monroe and Chicago, due to factual curiosity about Poetry magazine—and when was factual curiosity a criterion for art?  Only when art is made for sinking.

This is not to say that what an author does in body as well as spirit is not important—of course, occasionally, it is—we object to superficial and semi-obvious facts covering up the truth.

We always laugh, for instance, when critics list poets from a certain era—let’s say the 1890s—and since we haven’t heard of them, or read them, we’re all happy to assume that every last one of their works is awful, (as we continue to not read them) in comparison to Ezra Pound, the “revolutionary,” writing in 1910, and which we assume that many, if not most of his poems are exciting and new, not to mention “revolutionary.”  Or Pound’s friend, William Carlos Williams, “revolutionary,” too!

As long as we buy into the great “radical” art steam-rolling “conservative” art scheme, the great scholarly avant-garde ship keeps sailing along with Harriet Monroe, captain and Ezra Pound, first mate.

As soon as Rome became Christian, Christianity became conservative; when Paris recognized impressionism, impressionism became bourgeois; when New York bought abstract art, it sold for millions.

The skyscraper, the fact of the modern city, stands for many things, and it drives both commercial and democratic concerns.  The fact of the skyscraper is both radical and conservative, and in its balance, represents our age, which is both conservative and radical—which distinguishes all complex, civilized ages.

The skyscraper is democratic and commercial in its practical side of things; thus with the skyscraper the radical and the conservative are forever fused.

The trump card of the 20th century avant-garde was in getting itself called “modern” or “modernist.”  The name, “modern” became its chief selling point. This is another one of those obvious truths so obvious we hardly notice its real impact.  Victorian buildings are frilly; but the modern skyscraper (and modern art) is not.

As simplistic as this is, it is the stuff of artistic rivalry and ambition—the battle for the soul and the money of everything; this kind of artistic argument is nearly everything.

One could write a 17 volume treatise on verse, and all in vain, if it were shown, or more importantly, believed, that verse, was frilly.  Game over.  William Carlos Williams wins.

Take these four terms: conservative, radical, banker, poet.  They might very well define art for all time, believing, as we do, that the poet is always radical, the banker always conservative.  Belief in this formula has defined our age—but even as we recognize the force of the formula, we should recognize its falsity on a deeper level.

The poet becomes radical only when the banker fronting the poet is radical; in truth, art, in its primary existence, is conservative.

Socrates, the (lone) radical philosopher, pitted himself against Homer, the (popular) conservative poet; it was (O irony!) the triumph of Plato as an artist which made art into a radical vocation.  Shelley, the radical poet, faded away into Victorianism, or conservative poetry; Modernism rejected Victorianism so as to get back to Shelley—but something went terribly wrong along the way: the radical was kept, but everything else was rejected, including popular taste.  There is the lonely genius who, for the good of mankind, ought to get a hearing, and then there is the mediocrity—lonely because obscure.  These two should never be confused, but sometimes they are, especially if the latter is a clever s.o.b. who does a neat little dance in front of a skyscraper.

Art is conservative because of the phrase just used in the above paragraph: “Popular Taste.”  Homer was popular, but was censored by Plato on the matter of “taste.”  Since then, artistic success (favored by critic and mass audience alike) demands popular include popular taste.  The idea is actually democratic—taste refers to conditions which favor great masses of people respecting one another and treating each other well.  Mass appeal is required, but with something more: an unspoken sense of fitness and beauty, which, if we remember, Socrates accused Homer of violating, since Homer’s gods, superior beings, often acted from whim and cruelty.

One might think that radical art—and for many, these two words, radical and art, go hand in hand—is that which precisely offends popular taste.  But this is to put too much faith in shock, and not enough in art.  The Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, Massachusetts  is currently running an exhibit called “Future Beauty: Avant-Garde Japanese Fashion,” and we enjoyed our visit thoroughly, as we found ourselves more convinced that fashion is art, and we received, in addition, a happy insight: the avant-garde dress fashion was able to please us for the very reason that we are familiar with 1) the human body and 2) a dress.  It is precisely from these foundations of universal knowledge so vital to all fashion that the “new” (truly bizarre and truly avant-garde) was able—not always, but sometimes—to please us.

If we accept that fashion is art, and for this art to work, note how the human body and the dress comprise a conventionality and a tradition that is eternal, we get a glimpse into the absolute conservative nature of artwork that calls itself avant-garde.

The truth, that even in bouts of experimentation, art is a highly conservative medium, may be unsettling to some, but we realize those it might unsettle are immune to that sort of thing, anyway.  For all artists, in all mediums, it is important that the standard—whatever it happens to be—is established in the popular mind.  The eternal nature of this standard is not something we can take lightly; if a poet, for instance, writes poetry in which some in medias res, avant-garde experiment is the starting-point, the chance of it having mass appeal is nil; the poet must always return to the true starting-point of what the poem, as defined by the popular taste, happens to be.

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